Kyrgyz trade unions vow to protect labour rights ahead of Sunday’s elections

Kyrgyz trade unions vow to protect labour rights ahead of Sunday's elections

A campaign poster in support of the ruling SDPK party candidate Sooronbay Jeenbekov on the streets of Bishkek, ahead of the 15 October polling day.

(Naubet Bisenov)

This week, as the Kyrgyz presidential election campaign – described as Central Asia’s “most open election in history” by the Financial Times – enters the home straight, there is still no obvious favourite predicted to win. But whoever becomes president on 15 October, local trade unions are vowing to stand firm in the defence of workers’ rights, despite the eroding of labour and civil rights.

There are 13 candidates contesting the seat in Sunday’s election. The outgoing president, Almazbek Atambayev, cannot run for a second term as the current Kyrgyz constitution – changed in 2010 following ousters in 2005 and 2010 – prevents presidents from serving more than one six-year term.

Of the 13 candidates, most political analysts say that only four have a realistic shot at the presidency: Atambayev’s protégé Sooronbay Jeenbekov of the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), who was prime minister up until this August; Temir Sariyev, who was prime minister between 2015 and 2016 in Atambayev’s government; Omurbek Babanov, another former prime minister in Atambayev’s cabinet; and a lesser-known, former government official Adakhan Madumarov.

There is little difference in the election platforms of the various candidates, with all promising to improve the socio-economic condition of voters without offering any specifics on how they will achieve this.

“Kyrgyzstan is a unique country in Central Asia,” says Rysgul Babaeva, the acting chairperson of the Kyrgyzstan Federation of Trade Unions (KFTU). She describes it as “the most advanced democracy in Central Asia and even the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States). We can’t tell who will become president,” she tells Equal Times, referring to the relatively free nature of the forthcoming election which means the result is by no means a foregone conclusion. This stands in sharp contrast to neighbouring countries such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan where it is not uncommon for incumbents to secure more than 90 per cent of the vote.

However, the democratic credentials of the campaign have been marred by a series of rights violations, particularly on the independence of the judiciary and freedom of speech. This month a prominent journalist, Kabai Karabekov, was ordered by a Bishkek court to pay nearly US$72,000 in damages to Jeenbeekov for linking his brothers (who are not presidential candidates) to radical, foreign Islamist organisations.

Labour rights systematically curtailed

Kyrgyzstan is one of the region’s poorest countries. Although the official unemployment rate hovers around 8 per cent, over one million Kyrgyz nationals are estimated to be working abroad, particularly in Russia and neighbouring Kazakhstan where wages are higher than the average monthly salary of US$200. At the same time, informal work is rampant in Kyrgyzstan – unions claim that over 70 per cent of Kyrgyz workers are informal – which leaves workers with poor salaries and little protection from trade unions and labour laws.

Labour rights have been systematically curtailed in Kyrgyzstan since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. “They [the government] have always wanted to slim down the labour code,” which was first adopted in 1997 and modified in 2004, says KFTU lawyer Vyacheslav Breyvo.

“They have suggested the removal of legislative norms protecting labour rights, such as envisaging higher compensation for overtime and holiday shifts, decent compensation payments for those made redundant and so on,” he says. “They also wanted to cancel all norms regulating the employment of women, minors, part-timers and the disabled.”

Babaeva says the government is in danger of following in the footsteps of Georgia, a country which has been described by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) as “one of the worst cases in Europe as far as the rights of workers are concerned”.

The 2006 Georgian Labour Code put excessive restrictions on the right to strike, the labour rights of working women with children and the right of workers to be compensated for overtime. It was amended in 2013 with several notable improvements, including safeguards for workers’ choice of trade union affiliation and a ban on the dismissal of pregnant women, but Georgia is still one of only a handful of countries in the world not to have state labour inspectors.

Pro-employer government

Breyvo says that Kyrgyzstan has experienced significant deterioration in labour relations in recent years, as the government has tried to safeguard the interests of employers. He notes that previously there had been eight or 10 reasons for which employers could sack their employees, all of them subject to trade union scrutiny.

However, amendments to the labour code in 2004 have increased the number of reasons employers can fire their employees to 30, and trade unions can only get involved in just four instances.

In 2015, authorities suggested the removal of legislative guarantees for overtime and holiday shifts, the simplification of dismissal procedures and switching all workers to short-term contracts regardless of how long they had held their position. These amendments, if passed, would have affected 90 per cent of the workforce, the unions estimate.

Atambayev’s administration suggested, trade union officials say, that overtime pay should be decided by individual employers not by the state.

“These assaults are starting all over again and they [the government] want to change the labour code in favour of employers but we are holding our ground,” says Babaeva. “The KFTU is a huge boulder which one can’t just ignore in a democracy.”

Breyvo says that whoever wins this week’s elections, workers are bracing themselves for continued attacks on labour rights. “There will always be attacks on labour legislation because MPs and presidents are elected from the oligarchy that represent private major capital; they are employers,” the lawyer laments.

However, Babaeva says the confederation is determined to have a positive working relationship with the new administration. “Whoever is elected we will recognise it because as trade unions we are not involved in politics,” she says. “But they should also understand that the development of a democratic society is impossible without trade unions.”